This is Duncan McRae, Hendrick’s Gin’s UK Brand Ambassador. He talks to us about the role of heritage, entertainment & knowledge, the true power of the customer & his dislike of ‘perfect serves.’
Throughout the UK for
In London especially, good drinks are now expected. They’re a given. Today’s customers are walking into bars with open minds, and bartenders are there to take that receptive mentality and inspire and delight them with interesting serves. Sometimes consumers can walk in and they think they know what they want… But it’s a two-way process. And that’s what really creates the magic of the experience. It’s like two people going on a first date and they both really fancy each other. It’s chemistry of the nicest sort.
You can open a bar with the best intentions in the world, but it’s the customers that decide how it feels. If they like to drink fast and make lots of noise then it will be a noisy bar. Ten years ago, bars were places where customers could go and get cocktails. But now people are buying into an experience or a lifestyle. While you can always try to socially engineer drinking establishments, at the end of the day it’s the customers that will make a bar work.
When I was working at Dragonfly in Edinburgh, Stuart McCluskey, who was the General Manager, taught me that a bar is about a lot more than just cocktails. He taught me about looking after people and the dynamic of managing a bar. Everything from atmosphere and lighting right down to building tempo on a busy Friday night so that, come one o’clock, everyone’s in the same place and ready to leave with big smiles on their faces.
There’s a thirst for knowledge in the bar industry. The worst thing you can do as a bartender is step on the bar and not feel confident. Confident to first of all answer any questions about the drinks that people are drinking, but also about the products that you’re serving. And as the press leak more and more information into the consumer-sphere, now you’ve got consumers coming up and saying, ‘Can you just remind me of the difference between those two products? Is it cold distillation and then it’s cut here…?’
There’s this wealth of very knowledgeable customers out there. And that’s a great thing because it forces bartenders to be very aware about everything they’re serving.
There’s a real push out there for knowledge and understanding about taste – coffees, foods, flavours – but also for people feeling that they’re drinking something that not everyone else is drinking. They’re expressing themselves more and more through consumer choices. And that’s why, in this world where we’ve got new products being launched constantly (we’ve had more gins launched in the last ten years than in the last fifty) there’s still room for everyone.
We’re in a time where boutique is glamorous. Today, people are buying into the story behind products and liquids. So, provided these new brands have a genuinely positive intent and story, and a quality liquid that is well-made, well-packaged and well-thought out, then I think there is absolutely room for everyone.
I very much enjoyed my time at Diageo Reserve. Truly. But, for me, I find with William Grant & Sons that decision-making is refreshingly quick: when we have meetings about Hendrick’s, there’s rarely more than about four or five people in the room, and it’s always the same people and they’re in it for the long run. When you know that someone is taking a genuine interest in your role – and that it’s a role they believe in and are really committed to – then it makes you get up every morning and want to do your job fantastically.
Angel Face Cocktail
25ml Hendrick's Gin
25ml Apricot Brandy
Stir, and garnish with a spray of Peach Bitters
We’re famous for our fun, Victoriana events at Hendrick’s. And yes, that’s worked for us in the past. But there’s absolutely no reason why that’s going to work for us forever.
You know, we don’t work with Bompas and Parr because they’re quirky. We work with them because they are among the best in their field. It’s the same when we work with artists or fashion designers for a consumer event. It may have Lee Paton’s wearable taxidermy, for example, but that’s because he’s also one of the most ground-breaking young designers in the luxury market.
Heritage isn’t just about following the retro trend. It ties into authenticity. Just as the heritage of William Grant as a distiller ties back into our antique copper stills. As other people continue to plough the Victorian furrow, there’s nothing to say we can’t take a departure from that one day while still continuing to do interesting, exciting, witty events. Quality is something that almost surpasses trends or fashions. So although we’ve done some interesting marketing and quirky events that have made people laugh, what underpins it all is the fact that we are a really well-made, small-batch liquid.
The craft of the bartender has never been lost. I just think it’s never been such a good time to revisit what that means. Sure, different elements have come into fashion over time. For example, flair bartending in the 1980s: although it’s not as popular today, it absolutely was the right thing at the time. And even if we look back at that era and sometimes cringe, there are elements that are definitely still relevant to all bars – even the most niche boutique bars – and those are ‘theatre’ and ‘entertainment’.
Wowing a group of people at the bar today is done in a very different way than it was ten years ago. And I’m sure in ten years time, it will be done in a very different way than it is now.
Classics cocktails are here to stay. What the classics do is give us a sort of universal benchmark that allows people to be passionate about cocktails, and travel to different cities and different venues and have something with which to measure bars against each other.
The classics are also a great source of inspiration. One of the best drinks I’ve tried in the last couple of years is Joerg Meyer’s Gin Basil Smash. It’s a simple gin sour with one modifying ingredient. But the way that travelled around the world and worked its way onto countless menus has helped make it a modern classic.
Everyone likes drinks with a real, genuine story behind them. ‘This one bar in Hamburg came up with it, when they accidentally picked up basil instead of mint.’ I’m sure that’s not how it happened. But stories travel.
I wouldn’t say I ‘miss’ bars. I’m lucky enough to be in them everyday. The great thing about Hendrick’s is that it’s all very hands-on. I’m always being asked to create drinks for certain occasions or events, and I’ve got a number of friends in the industry so I get to steal their upstairs bars during the day to experiment and play around.
I’d say that I’m inventing more drinks now than I ever have done. That comes in part through necessity – but also having time. And one thing about bartenders is that they have so little free time. With the level of creativity we have from bartenders today, we’re spoilt. And I don’t think we give them enough credit for that.
‘Perfect serves’ is a term I really dislike. Every brand has a way they’d like their product to be drunk, but as soon as you put it in the open market and it sells, it’s the bartenders who really have the final say. While we can prescribe drinks reasonably successfully, I think it would be a shame for brands to stop people being creative with them.
At the opposite end of the scale you’ve got some bars that would maybe like some recommendations. So every year we try to come up with a spectrum of recipes that can be put in a handbook. If people want to use them, then that’s great. They’re there to be used. And if they don’t, then that’s also fine.
We’re never going to force anyone to serve Hendrick’s in a particular way. But if we can help people make the most out of it, then all the better.